Adjournment Matter. - State Airports.

Thursday, 29 November 2001

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 168 No. 17

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Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Information on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  Zoom on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  I thank the Cathaoirleach for affording me the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I am disappointed the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, has not come into the House to take debates relating to her Department for two consecutive days. However, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt.

The Minister of State will be aware that following the disaster in New York on 11 September the Government set up an interdepartmental committee consisting of seven Departments – the Office of the Attorney General and the Departments of the Taoiseach, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Finance, the Marine and Natural Resources and Public Enterprise. The ad hoc committee was chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach. When it was established, I understand it was specifically requested to respond to the challenges posed to the economy in general and to tourism in particular as a result of what happened on 11 September. It has met on a number of occasions and has presented an interim report to the relevant Departments and to the other bodies which have something to contribute directly or indirectly to that area.

Specific recommendations were made in that report regarding the development of Pier D by spring 2003 – on the basis of existing planning permission – through low-cost carriers. That is to be done at Dublin Airport. The proposed strategy is to enter into appropriate arrangements for the management of Pier D and to ensure that it facilitates a significant growth throughout Dublin Airport through low-cost operators. The management was also requested by that same departmental group to manage existing facilities in the interim to encourage growth and traffic by low-cost carriers through appropriate capacity allocation at Dublin Airport.

The report is fairly short, but the only reference to Shannon is contained in the words “to develop appropriate strategies to increase traffic through Shannon”. The airport most dramatically affected and impacted by 11 September is Shan[1058] non and I find it extraordinary that it warrants little more than six words at the end of a report. The major focus is on further expansion and extension of Dublin Airport. That is what this Government and the seven Departments aimed at in the production of this ad hoc report.

Can the Government justify recommending further investment in a semi-State operation at an airport that is already excessively congested while the infrastructure which serves it is under extreme pressure? The facility in Shannon, put there with taxpayers' money, is under-utilised. It has the capacity to handle 5 million passengers annually, but is currently handling about 2 million. No proactive action is taken to utilise that facility fully.

The Government's priorities are askew. If the Government were seriously to examine international aviation policy, it would find that low-cost carriers operate out of secondary airports all over Europe and the United States of America. However, this Government turns normal aviation practice on its head, which does not make economic sense. Ryanair is a successful low-cost carrier operating here and across Europe. Ryanair, Go or any other low-cost airline would provide services out of Shannon Airport and they should be given every encouragement by the Government and Aer Rianta to do so.

I ask the Government to examine seriously the nature of the report presented by civil servants from seven Departments, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach. Those who made these recommendations sat in their offices in Dublin 2 and never came to Shannon to examine the facilities there. They simply presented a report. The recommendations of that report and its direction did not happen by chance. Political direction was given from on high. It was strange that the Department of the Taoiseach chaired the group that produced the report. At the same time that an official from the Taoiseach's Department chaired the group presenting this report to the Department of Public Enterprise, which then presented it to Aer Rianta, another official from his Department met a group from the Shannon-Atlantic alliance group. That group is made up of interested parties from Kerry to Sligo and it was specifically told by the official that as far as the Taoiseach is concerned Shannon and Cork take priority over Pier D. It is about time the Taoiseach got his lines straight. He cannot have it both ways.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:  I hate to stop you in mid flight, Senator, but we are about to ground you.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Information on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  Zoom on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  I am not yet ready to land. I will ground in due course.

The Taoiseach has one official chairing a group that recommends proceeding with Pier D and at the same time he has an official meeting a delegation to say the Department considers Cork [1059] and Shannon to be the priorities. The duplicity had better stop.

It is about time the Government prioritised the national interest, particularly in relation to the airport that has been most damaged by the fall-out from 11 September. The tourism forecast for the west of Ireland for the coming year is that the visitor numbers will be down 30%. That would be a major calamity for business and tourism interests right along the west coast. The Minister of State, as a native of the west, appreciates that. He appreciates the impact 10,000 fewer passengers per week going through Shannon Airport next year will have on the entire economy of the mid-west. This Government has a responsibility to address that issue and I urge the Minister for Public Enterprise to do so immediately. It is vitally important for the entire area.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. T. Kitt): Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. As someone from the west of Ireland, I understand her concerns. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, who is genuinely unable to be present to respond directly to the Senator.

As the Minister said in the Dáil earlier this week, Shannon Airport has experienced extremely good growth in passenger numbers in recent years. Over the last two years, 1999 and 2001, traffic through Shannon Airport increased by more than 500,000 passengers, representing growth of more than 30% on the 1998 levels. Passenger traffic for the first nine months of this year reached almost 2 million.

The dreadful events in the US in September are, of course, having a dramatic impact on the aviation sector throughout the world, particularly on travel to and from the United States of America. The Minister greatly regrets the reduction in services across the Aer Lingus network and capacity cutbacks by other carriers operating in Ireland. They impact on all three State airports, including Shannon.

As the Senator knows, Aer Lingus terminated its transatlantic services to Newark and Baltimore and reduced services to Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. The Delta Airlines daily service to JFK has also been terminated, at least for the winter. Some other services from Shannon on domestic, UK and European routes have also been termin[1060] ated or curtailed as a result of the current downturn in the global aviation market. The Minister expects, however, that when confidence in air travel, particularly in the USA, is re-established and the aviation market recovers generally, the strong growth curve at Shannon Airport will resume. In this regard the adoption of the survival plan for Aer Lingus is vital to secure the position of the company and will provide a strong base for sustainable future growth when the market recovers.

In this regard also, she very much welcomed the announcement last month by Aer Rianta of an extension of its zero-charges incentive scheme for airlines which launch new routes into the three State airports. In the case of new routes at Shannon, Aer Rianta extended the period for zero airport charges from three to four years. In addition Aer Rianta will provide marketing support for route development promotional activities. These initiatives are intended to help reduce the impact of the current global aviation downturn on traffic at the State airports, including Cork Airport, and to boost the Irish aviation and tourism sectors in the months and years ahead.

The Minister would also like to emphasise, as she has done on numerous previous occasions, that Government policy in relation to transatlantic services at Shannon Airport remains unchanged. Indeed, the Government recently confirmed the continuation of the transatlantic services policy at Shannon in the context of its consideration of the difficult circumstances in Aer Lingus. The Government is committed to maintaining a viable Shannon Airport as well as a viable Aer Lingus. The Minister is confident that, despite the current difficulties in the aviation sector, the future viability of Shannon Airport is secure. It will continue to grow, prosper and contribute to balanced regional development.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Information on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  Zoom on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  Will the Minister of State give an assurance that the Minister for Public Enterprise will restore the early morning and late-night flights by Aer Lingus through Shannon Airport?

Mr. T. Kitt: Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  I assure Senator Taylor-Quinn that all her points will be conveyed to the Minister for Public Enterprise.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Information on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  Zoom on Madeleine Taylor-Quinn  I have no doubt about that.

The Seanad adjourned at 1.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2001.

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